Roots

Back in about 1955 we lived in an old brick house on the Telegraph Road a hundred yards or so back from the beach in the town of Bathurst (now called Banjul) on the river Gambia in West Africa. It had big airy rooms, and tall wooden shuttered sash windows, and wooden floorboards you could see between into the rooms below, which were full of whirring, clattering telegraph equipment. There was no running water, and the toilet had a bucket under it that got removed at night, sometimes when you were sitting on it. Drinking water came in small quantities from a condenser. Milk came from milk powder mixed with this water. There were big spiders on the ceiling, that bounced off the floor if they fell. We slept under mosquito nets, and if you slept with an arm against the net you’d wake in the morning with the skin raw where mosquitoes had bitten through the net.

And there were big iron rings set into the wall beneath the balcony that overlooked the beach. My father said that was where slaves used be kept in chains. And maybe they were. After all, this was one of the ports of departure of slaves to the New World, and the house was probably 150 years old – old enough to have seen slaves.

The garden around the house was all sand, because Bathurst was really just a sand spit. There were mango trees in the garden, and we ate lots of their big juicy purple mangoes. Hairy fruit bats with leathery wings also fed on the mangoes at night. And there were tall steel frame telegraph masts at each end of the garden, a hundred feet high, aerial wires stretched between. And there were scampering lizards that shed their tails when chased – then grew new, sometimes double ones.

Between the house and the beach there was a Muslim cemetery from which the yellowing bones got slowly washed out onto the beach. And further up the beach there were big dead sharks that the local fishermen had caught, with only their conical heads remaining attached to a cartilaginous spine, all the flesh stripped off. Further up the coast there was a creek, inhabited by crocodiles, their twin eyes poking out of the water that ran out between the mangrove swamps onto the beach. In the surf on the beach there were occasionally sharks patrolling. And on the sand there were numerous whitened cuttlefish shells, and stranded iridescent swollen Portuguese Men o’ War with long blue threaded stinging tails. We often watched the sun setting on the western horizon after an afternoon on that beach.

There was also a tide rip on the beach, where two shore currents met, and a resultant strong current flowed out from the beach. One day some sailors from a British naval ship visited the beach and happened to pick the precise spot where the tide rip was to go swimming: two or three of them were drowned.

The port near the centre of the town consisted of a jetty made of palm trees that had been pile-driven into the sea floor off the beach. Just inland from it was the governor’s palatial mansion.

It was baking hot and humid most of the time, with a faint odour of decay. But sometimes there were tremendous storms, torrential rain, thunder and lightning. One night lightning even took big branches off the mango trees.

We had a black gardener called Charlie who used to carry me on his shoulders. But instead of just walking sedately around, he used to crouch down low, and run, making me scream with laughter.

One day the old house got torn down by an engine that pulled out the brick walls with steel cables looped round them. It was replaced by one built of concrete blocks, which had running water and two bathrooms and a kitchen. There were no gaps in its concrete beam floors.

The river Gambia was the place upon which Alex Haley’s Roots was based. But I have roots there too. After all, I once lived there.

It was the most primitive place I ever lived. It’s also the place of which I have the most vivid memories, of scorching heat and torrential rain and mosquitoes and bats and sharks and crocodiles. Modernity had only just started to arrive. It was called the White Man’s Grave, and it had an air of the imminence and the reality of death about it. Death was never far away: I once watched a big snake writhing on the ground as it was being killed with spades on a road nearby.

One day we boarded a Dakota and took off from the primitive airport with its uneven steel mesh runway. I  never went back. I never wanted to. It’s probably all very modern and civilised now, and I’d hate it. I never like going back to anywhere I once lived, because the changes always shock me.

Last I heard, it had become a tourist resort with the beaches lined with hotels. I doubt there are any more crocodiles left in its creeks, or dead sharks and human bones on its beaches. I knew it at a time when it was in transition from one era to another, before its raw, elemental nature had been completely overlaid with a cushioning buffer of civility, with streetlights and roadsigns and traffic lights and adverts and bars and discos and drive-in burger bars.

But it’ll all still be there, six inches beneath the surface. And when the tide of modernity has eventually subsided it’ll be reclaimed by the lizards and bats and mosquitoes and spiders and snakes and crocodiles and sharks.

.

About Frank Davis

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18 Responses to Roots

  1. Jon T says:

    Beautifully written Frank.

  2. Александра Собина says:

    “I never like going back to anywhere I once lived, because the changes always shock me.”
    I know this too.

  3. RdM says:

    Thanks for the nice memoir Frank,

    It must have changed a lot since. I don’t see Telegraph Road here…

    https://tinyurl.com/Banjul-now

    Could you guide us around, pinpoint the old spot on the new map? Ya reckon? Would be nice.
    Even though against revisiting;- history :- )

    “Back in about 1955 we lived in an old brick house on the Telegraph Road a hundred yards or so back from the beach in the town of Bathurst (now called Banjul) on the river Gambia in West Africa”

    Can you see the replacement, or the approximate spot where it would have been?

    Just for fun, hopefully ;- )

    Regards!

    • Frank Davis says:

      I’ve added the map to the post

      The Atlantic Hotel was there back in 1955 (we visited often). It seems to have been completely rebuilt and enlarged.

      Marina Parade was also there in 1955.

      Telegraph Road now seems to be called Ebou Conteth Road. I’ve outlined what I think was our garden compound. There was a large hospital on the other side of the road from us, which is also still there.

      The old house was in the tree-covered north end of the compound. The new house that replaced it may still be there, but would seem to be obscured by trees (there were several big ones in 1955).

      There was a second house built in which we were living when the old house got demolished. We lived in a spacious flat on the first floor. The ground floor was occupied by offices and telegraph equipment. After the old house had been demolished, the new house built on its site had two floors but no offices, so was a smaller building than the second house.

      The radio masts at the north and south end of the compound seem to have gone. There would be long shadows if they were still there.

      Both new houses may still be there. I’m not sure.

      The beach about which I wrote was called Fajara, and is several miles up the coast.


      Probably the most appropriate piece of music

  4. Lew says:

    I made the mistake of revisiting two idyllic places i lived as a boy, not as we were rich my parents were in private service to landed gentry usually from a bygone age hence we lived in tied cottages on the estates.

    One house in the unmade dead end lane is now obviously privately owned and no longer features the Crittal steel framed single glazed windows that you had to scrape the ice off the inside when you woke up in the morning, its also much larger than before and no doubt the range in the kitchen with back boiler for hot water is now gone and central heating throughout, my manky dog Robby would sit so close to that raging inferno of a boiler its amazing he didn’t self combust, the lane itself only led to our tied cottage but now more houses for the wealthy have appeared further along.

    The other idyll, our cottage has gone as well as the lake some 20 yards away, previously there was only our cottage and the under gardeners prefab bungalow on the estate grounds, as a boy i would lie in the grass and watch the goings on as Saudi Princes and such visited the estate, i spent many hours exploring the huge barn next door full of exotic things from an old Willys Jeep (rebuilt with some minor help from me by one Saudi Prince during a summer) to suits of arnour and various arms, when nothing interesting doing i had the free roam of some 1 mile square of woods plus the lake (plus another full of newts) and another lake deep in the woods to keep me occupied, the mansion is now owned by some conglomerate or other and where our cottage and the barn and prefab stood the land obviously sold off there is a small estate of seriously expensive houses, a private road the opnly access means you would never know these places exist either then or now.
    Both were in Hertfordshire.

    It is saddening to see these changes, the latter estate especially was an old England i loved and still do, that great hymn Jerusalem could have been written for that pleasant land, i too wish i hadn’t returned and could die still seeing them in my mind as they once were in much better times.

  5. Ric Machin says:

    I went there as a young man in 1983 when the tourist dept was just getting started. All one storey family run hotels. It was an unforgettable experience. Loved it.

  6. Dr Evil says:

    That was superbly atmospheric. I was transported there for a few minutes. Such excellent writing.

    • Joe L. says:

      +1. Such vivid recollections. I also felt like I was transported to Bathurst circa 1955. Despite having never set foot there, and despite what sounds like subpar living conditions, I too feel nostalgic and I’m saddened to see a raw, unique, historic town swept away and replaced with a cookie-cutter beach resort tourist trap.

      One of the best short stories I’ve read in a while. Thank you for sharing, Frank.

  7. Clicky says:

  8. DP says:

    Dear Mr Davis

    I came across this years ago:

    http://www.mccrow.org.uk/EastAfrica/EA_Airports_GeoffPollard.htm

    Scroll down to the last photo. You may recognise the whitewashed stones and the sign, probably not the bike though.

    Apropos personal nostalgia, the two photos above it are of Nduli aerodrome – as shown on the sign on the barrier, which closes the Iringa-Dodoma road for take-offs and landings. It is the airport for Iringa.

    The three airport buildings are still in use, the middle one being the garage for the fire engine. A 360deg google streetview shows them as they are now – including much larger fire engine in residence.

    The new runway lay parallel to the road, but the old runway is still clearly discernible on satellite view. The road has now been diverted to the west for some reason – probably elf’n’safety.

    Should anyone wander over for a look on google, typing Iringa in the search bar gets you there. The photo at the top shows our old bungalow – the orange roof at the right end of, and below the two parallel white lines which are the walls of the compound of the house next door, about 1/3 down from the top left corner and a smidgen in. The bungalow is gone now and Manor Royal Villa hotel occupies the site. Nduli is 12 miles to the north and east a bit, on the A104. Typing Nduli gets you straight there but you miss our old home.

    Ah nostalgia. It ain’t what it used to be.

    DP

  9. Clicky says:

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